Reaching Out to Eastgerman Jews

Irene Runge, a leader of the Jewish community of East Berlin, was among the interviewees in the documentary film “Kristallnacht: The Journey from 1938 to 1988”, which focused on the remaining Jewish communities in West Germany, East Germany and Austria. She also consulted for the film which was produced by the Ronald Lauder Foundation for the Public Broadcasting System.

Runge, who was born in Queens, is the daughter of German leftists who fled Europe in 1939. In 1949, when Runge was seven-years old, her parents returned to East Germany to participate in the new German Democratic Republic government.

Following what Runge describes as a “typical” East German pattern of early marriage and childbearing, Runge went on to earn a doctorate in gerontology, and has been involved over the years in studying family and work life. Her latest book, on Kristallnacht, reviews contemporary local reports of the pogrom and the milieu in which it occurred. It will be published in East Germany.

Runge, now a professor of sociology at Humboldt University, points out that each individual Jew has a personal reason for living in East Germany today. Beyond this, Runge noted, “Not to have a thriving Jewish community in Germany would be just what Hitler wanted.” By virtue of her academic position, Runge has been able to reach out to a second generation of Jews — adult children of survivors. This population is seeking to satisfy Jewish cultural, intellectual and affiliation needs, rather than narrowly defined ritual needs, she says. A group of about 170 people participates regularly in programs such as films, speakers, Hebrew classes, social gatherings for holidays and even cooking classes. Runge views this group, many of whom are the offspring of intermarriages, as vital to a Jewish future in East Germany.

An ambitious community project currently underway is the restoration of the Oranien burger Strasze Synagogue, which seats 5,000. Funds will come from the German government, as well as private donations, and the complex will be home to a Jewish museum, as well.

The population of Jews in East Germany is currently estimated at anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people.